Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox

Why does Julia Fox use the word "infamous" in the title of her book Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford? As described by Fox, the sister-in-law of Henry VIII's second wife seemed to have been just a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. She mostly did as she was expected. Her parents aspired to have her marry well, so she was sent to serve Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. There she met and married George Boleyn. When Henry broke his bonds with Catherine and the Roman Catholic Church, he married Anne Boleyn, George's sister. Jane only did as expected in serving her sister-in-law, prospering with her new family while Henry's beneficence lasted. When Anne and George lost their heads for treason against their king, Jane miraculously survived to live temporarily in reduced circumstances until she reentered court to serve Henry's third, fourth, and fifth wives. In the service of fifth wife Catherine Howard, she was condemned for keeping the queen's secrets (what ladies were expected to do) when her ultimate allegiance should have been to the king. In Fox's account, Jane's sole misstep was not retiring to the country to live in obscurity when she had a chance.

Only in the epilogue to Jane Boleyn, after the subject's beheading, do readers learn origin of her "infamous" character. According to Fox, royal historians needing to spin history to favor both the queens and the king used Jane as a scapegoat, recasting her as a manipulating woman who designed both Anne Boleyn's and Catherine Howard's falls. Using original sources, Fox found no condemnation of Jane in her lifetime.

Why should we be interested in a sideline character? Jane Boleyn may not have been in charge or even able to control her own fate, but she was close to events that changed the politics and culture of Great Britain. She saw much that would impress any subject of the realm. She was present at banquets, weddings, coronations, births, and trials, as well as in the bedchambers in times of infidelity. Fox describes many of these in great detail.

What I do not understand is the contrite execution speeches of men and women losing their heads. Each condemned person standing before an executioner confessed and asked God's blessing for their righteous king. Perhaps the witness reports should not really be believed. I kept waiting for someone to say that the king should rot in Hell. Many people died so that Henry could have his many wives and claim many great houses and estates. With each death the royal treasure grew.

Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford is a moving story of injustice which will interest many fans of English history. The audiobook is particularly entertaining.

Fox, Julia. Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford. Ballantine Books, 2007. ISBN 9780345485410

10 compact discs. Books on Tape, 2008. ISBN 9781415946503

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